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Middleton on Martyrdom in Mark and Revelation

March 2, 2015

Paul Middleton offers a tightly argued and stimulating essay on early Christians’ attitudes toward suffering (for their faith/Jesus) and martyrdom:  “Christology, Martyrdom, and Vindication in the Gospel of Mark and the Apocalypse:  Two New Testament Views,” in Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism:  Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter T. Roth (London:  Bloombury T&T Clark, 2015), 219-37.

Middleton (one of my former PhD students) is now the “go-to guy” on early Christian martyrdom, with a number of valuable and informed studies of the subject, including these:  Radical Martyrdom and Cosmic Conflict in Early Christianity (London:  T&T Clark, 2006); Martyrdom:  A Guide for the Perplexed (London:  T&T Clark, 2011); and “Early Christian Voluntary Martyrdom:  A Statement for the Defence,” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 556-73.

In the first part of the essay in question, Middleton reviews some major issues about early Christian martyrdom, taking what I regard as sound and balanced stances on some controversial issues.  For example, in response to some scholars’ minimizing of the incidences of state-sponsored executions of Christians, he rightly notes that, though “imperial persecution” (i.e., empire-wide) was sporadic, “local prosecution” (by magistrates such as Pliny) needs to be taken into account as well:  “To insist upon a persecution/prosecution distinction is artificial; to the Romans all actions taken against Christians were prosecution for misdemeanour rather than persecution, while Christians would interpret all such action as manifestations of the suffering anticipated in the NT on account of Jesus’ name” (221).

Noting that early Christian texts typically present Christian martyrdom as a kind of re-enactment of Jesus’ execution (perhaps the first example of this the Stephen episode in Acts 7, followed by a number of other texts, particularly evidence in Ignatius of Antioch’s letters), he observes how suffering (variously) for Jesus’ sake is likewise treated in light of, and connected to Jesus’ own “passion.”  He also notes, however, that “not all early Christians appear to have placed the same value on suffering and martyrdom” (225).  Seconding an earlier study by Elaine Pagels, he judges, “There is, therefore, a clear correlation between an early Christian group’s view of the Passion [Jesus’ own suffering/death] and their attitude to martyrdom” (227).  The “less enthusiastic” for Christian martyrdom also tended to be those who thought that Jesus did not really suffer (so-called “docetic” Christians).

The second part of Middleton’s essay (227-37) is a survey of the treatment of Christian suffering/martyrdom in the Gospel of Mark and in Revelation.  He makes a contrast between these two writings:  Mark emphasizes the necessity to follow Jesus in suffering and “take up the cross” also, with very little explicitly stated as the reward, whereas Revelation emphasizes both the looming danger of martyrdom and also proffers explicit rewards for those who are faithful through suffering/martyrdom.  I grant that he makes a case successfully that these two writings treat the topic differently, at least as to emphasis.  But I think that he reads Mark overly bleakly, not doing justice to some texts and (in my view) misreading one or two others.

For example, Middleton judges that the reader of Mark “has to imagine the vindication of Jesus which takes place beyond the text” (231).  But at various points readers are assured that Jesus will both suffer and be raised (by God).  E.g., texts often referred to as “passion predictions” are more accurately “passion-resurrection predictions” 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34, reflective of a curious monocular tendency in Markan scholarship.  Likewise, the transfiguration episode (Mark 9:2-13) includes Jesus’ reference to his resurrection (which the text highlights by having the disciples puzzled over the matter), and in Mark 14:27 again Jesus foretells his resurrection and renewed leadership.  Finally, in 16:7-8 the mysterious youth announces to the stunned women at the tomb that Jesus has been raised bodily, and that they will again see him in Galilee.  So, I’d say that readers of Mark should have little doubt that Jesus has been vindicated and what form that vindication has taken.  Consequently,in my view,  the hope of believers is not quite so contentless as Middleton claims.  In short(as Middleton seems to have suspected), I don’t find Mark quite as “bleak” as he does.  But I’d guess that his view is more widely shared among Mark scholars than mine is.  So take that into account.

But, our somewhat different “take” on Mark aside, I reiterate my praise for this fine essay.  He certainly shows differences among various early Christians on the subject of suffering & martyrdom.  I’m honoured to have been Paul’s supervisor, and pleased and honoured to have this fine essay included in this volume.

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  1. Sean permalink

    Hi Larry, just a correction concerning Middleton’s article:
    Paul Middleton, “Early Christian Voluntary Martyrdom: A Statement for the Defence.” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 556–73.

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